A/N: As of October 12th, 2006, I, Dustin "Lifethane" do hereby quit my security guard job. Until I ship out to the Navy in February 2007, I will take orders from nobody. This is the beginning of the end of my civilian life, and I plan to spend it on me... and, because I love my reviewers and worshipers so much, on you.
I feel as though a grand new era of my life has begun. For this reason, and for the fact that "Lacking Sight" is not as appropriate a title as before (The blind ones, A.K.A. Naruto and the Hyuugas and—to some degree—Sasuke have all woken up), I am wrapping up Lacking Sight and beginning where it leaves off in a sequel story. It's been fun... but now my evil comes to a peak, for you must all take the grueling effort to add another story to your alert list! Ha ha HA!
Epilogue: Seeing Again
The Village Hidden in the Leaves was in good hands. It's Hokage was still alive and strong, getting the wounded back on their feet and overseeing the reconstruction effort with a watchful eye and a strong governing hand. The posts of the dead were being manned by Konoha's allies, the Suna shinobi, who were captained by Kankurou and Temari, the Kazekage having returned to his own village, where reports of Hidden Rock scouts were already trickling in. Those who hadn't died went on with their missions, continuing to bring revenue into the shinobis' coffers. Konoha would continue to thrive, and would be strong again quickly.
But before tranquility set in again, there were other matters to deal with besides the reconstruction and defense. The Hyuuga Clan, though it had not been exterminated, was going to be going through a structural overhaul, its Advisory Council gone and its Branch families lacking an official leader. Some of the members of the Village Council had been killed. Reports were coming in of strange activity in the Country of Water, seemingly verifying the information given by the prisoner, Uchiha Sasuke, who was himself an enigma. And most mystifyingly, two high-level ninjas had disappeared without a trace.
It was these last last two issues that Tsunade, the Godaime Hokage, called together six of her most trusted shinobi to address. Before her they stood, attentive and quiet, waiting for her to begin. Tsunade herself looked them up and down. They had healed up quite nicely, though the wear and tear on their souls was prominent in their eyes. This wear did not deter Tsunade, however; these were shinobi that had survived trials of unspeakable difficulty and prevailed, and that made them trustworthy.
"Let's begin," she said. "I know you've all seen a lot in these last few days. Only three days ago, we suffered the largest loss since the Sand and Sound invasion almost three years before. Each of you suffered in keeping the village safe, and for that I want to thank you. But I need to ask you to put aside your pain and fatigue, because another task needs doing that I will trust with no one else. Can I rely on all of you?"
"No problem, Tsunade Baa-chan," asserted the young man on the far right. His blue eyes sparkled at the prospect of action, and the Hokage could not help but grin warmly at the blond-haired boy wonder.
"I also am ready, Hokage-sama," agreed the soft-spoken girl next to him. The pearls of her eyes focused on Tsunade when she spoke, but the Hokage noted that she flicked them towards Naruto often. The boy had only been released from the hospital this morning; she was worried that he might re-injure himself if he pushed it too hard. Naruto noticed and gave her a smile, attempting to reassure her, though something in his eyes suggested to Tsunade that all was not quite well within his mind. The girl, however, did not question it.
"I will obey your commands, Hokage-sama," declared the handsome youth standing protectively Hinata's other side. He seemed to notice the silent interchange between the two on his right, but did not react; he knew that his attention was owed to the Hokage, and kept his silver eyes focused forward. He would assess the situation with them later.
"We're good to go. Aren't we, Akamaru?"
Tsunade smiled at the young man and the huge dog that sat wagging his tail behind him. These two had also recovered remarkably quickly, a testament to the strength of their bond. The boy seemed a little miffed at having been able to do so little against Hanabi's assassins, but his joy at surviving and being able to stand with his faithful pet again outweighed it; he was ready.
The heavily bundled figure to Kiba's left merely nodded his head. He was as quietly composed as ever, a trait that would prove invaluable in a mission of this kind. Silently admiring his unrivaled cool-headedness, Tsunade turned her focus to the last of the six.
The Hokage's pink-haired apprentice was different from before. It was not a large difference; she still had the attentiveness, the desire and drive to improve herself, and the care for her friends. But there was a subtle change in the way she bore herself and in her green gaze. She seemed somehow more relaxed, more at peace. Tsunade was pleased to see that Sakura's past mistakes no longer haunted her.
"Good," Tsunade said. She rose from her desk and walked to stand before one of the windows of the office, looking out over the village. From this spot, she swept her gaze across the damage and the crews working to repair it. The sun was bright today; a fine day to begin a journey. Satisfied, the Godaime began the briefing.
"Your mission has two purposes," she said. "It is a combination of reconnaissance and rescue. Uzumaki Naruto and Hyuuga Neji, I am entrusting the two of you with the care of our prisoner, Uchiha Sasuke."
A sharp intake of breath was heard from several of those gathered, but Tsunade held up her hand, stopping all questions before they began.
"Do not argue with me about it. He was Naruto's prisoner to begin with, and as his former close teammate, Naruto is the one who will know best what to make of Uchiha's words and actions. Neji is very skilled at reading people, and will be able to warn the others if he suspects danger from him. They will have full responsibility for him. If you have a problem with the prisoner, take it up with one of them."
The six remained hushed. For only two people to be trusted with such a dangerous criminal...! The shock of it was astounding. Still, none of them could bring themselves to argue the point. The Hokage's word was law, and shinobi had to be able to trust her reasoning.
"As I was saying," Tsunade continued, "Your mission is twofold. Uchiha Sasuke will guide you to the Grave, a wasteland region between the Earth and Rice Field countries. We have cause to believe that Orochimaru might be going there. If he is, you will perform reconnaissance, acquiring information about his planned movements and actions, locations of his other strongholds, and the status of his strength—military power and the strength of his current body. This is not an assassination mission. Do not attack without cause, and if you are attacked and able to run, then run.
She paused to allow questions. When there were none, she continued.
"Second, we believe that Haka no Keisuke, who disappeared in the chaos of the invasion, was captured by Orochimaru's agents, and that Orochimaru is attempting to extract or replicate his unique abilities. Conduct a thorough search for him and, if you find him, rescue him using any means necessary. He is a shinobi of the Leaf, and we will not leave him behind."
"Tsunade Baa-chan?" asked Naruto when she stopped. "Why aren't you sending Haruka nee-chan with us? She's been Keisuke nii-chan's partner for two years... I know she really wants to bring him back."
Tsunade grimaced. Naruto probably knew better than she did; after all, the boy had only three years ago tried and failed to bring back his own best friend, the traitor Uchiha. The failure had been haunting him for years, and though he managed to get over it and work on becoming stronger, it undoubtedly must have hurt him on the inside. Knowing what loss could do to a person, was it right to deny Haruka even the chance to try?
She sighed. This was all so hard on her already-aching head...
"I did not call her here because of her deplorable behavior in the aftermath of the battle. As much as I'm sure you're right, Naruto, I cannot allow such an unstable shinobi to go into battle. Then again," she said, considering, "I haven't heard a word out of her since her episode at the hospital. Where has she been for the last two days?"
Naruto did not know, and did not speak. Hinata, however, did.
"I... I saw her once, Hokage-sama. She was in Keisuke-san's house... The place was a mess, and the walls were ripped out in places, as though she had been checking behind them. But when I found her there, she was just sitting quietly in the middle of the living room, looking at nothing, and when I tried to talk to her, she asked me politely to go away..."
This could be trouble, Tsunade thought. From what I've heard, Hyuuga Haruka being quiet and polite is about as bad as Naruto rejecting ramen. And the fact that she's doing it in that place doesn't help.
"Very well," she said, making a decision, "Hinata, Naruto, and Neji... the three of you go to her before you leave. If she appears to sane and can function with a sense of normalcy, then take her with you. If not, leave her here. I don't want any unchecked emotions jeopardizing this mission. Understood?"
When she received three affirmatives, the Hokage nodded and went on.
"Hyuuga Neji, you will be the official team leader. Take charge and do not fail—this mission could give us critical information."
Neji straightened. "Hai, Hokage-sama!"
Tsunade nodded in satisfaction. "All right. Everyone but Naruto, you are dismissed. Neji, I want you to have them ready to depart before sunset. Go."
Naruto and Tsunade watched as the other five filed out of the room. Neji closed the door behind them. The Godaime waited until the last of the footsteps faded away before clearing her throat.
"Baa-chan, why did you have me stay behind? If it's about my seal, it's fine. It doesn't hurt..."
"Uzumaki Naruto," the Hokage said, maintaining an air of authority, "I have read the reports of your performance in the battle three days ago. After much review, the survivors of the Village Council and the officials in the shinobi registry office have agreed that you have demonstrated phenomenal combat capability, a capable and quick-thinking mind for battle, and the ability to know what is important and act rightly even in the face of death."
Naruto's eyebrows raised, and he stared at her in awe. He hadn't been complimented this much by an adult in a long time. And he'd never been complimented seriously by anyone using an official-sounding tone. Where was she going with this?
"I regret that we do not have the time or resources to give you the badges of your new station," she apologized, "But that will be remedied upon your safe return."
Naruto suddenly seemed to comprehend, but wasn't quite believing it. "Baa-chan, you don't really... do you?"
Tsunade smiled wide, dropped the authoritative tone, and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Congratulations, Naruto," she said, "On your promotion to the Chuunin level."
Haruka sat in shadow within the emptiness of the house, her thoughts on its last inhabitant. She remembered clearly the last moments she had had with him, the last things they'd said...
"You'd better hide yourself well, you big blind dolt. If I come back here and you're dead, I'll be really mad at you for taking away my favorite door mat. Now, I've got things to kill."
"Undoubtedly. Don't have too much fun, though, Sadist. Leave one for me to talk to later."
"I won't promise anything, but I'll try. Later."
Ah, the old game. The absence of the Sadist and Blind Fool bullshit that they'd hurled back and forth at each other for two years gnawed at her.
"Damn it," she whispered to herself and to no one, "I didn't know I'd gotten so dependent on all those insults..."
It was so unfair. Keisuke had just achieved one of his life's greatest goals, and brought his lost children back into the light. So unfair! They'd only just patched up their partnership, and now the two of them were torn apart again by outside forces. Yes, she'd responded irrationally to his disappearance, but damn it, the sheer unfairness of it made her mad as hell! She clenched her fists in her lap, trembling with remembered fury.
No, calm down, she thought. I can't do anything if I just rage and scream and smash things up. I have to hold it in, and act like a shinobi, or I can't bring him back.
But holding it down was not easy. The shaking intensified. No matter how hard she tried, her anguished rage would not be banished. Haruka felt another session of smashing and tearing ahead of her...
Haruka remembered, again, how she had been about to attack Hinata despite her having done no wrong, and drag Naruto out of his room while he was healing and in pain. The guilt washed over her like a watery prank that Keisuke and Naruto had once pulled on her together, snuffing the dark fires of her anger. Naruto, Hinata, and Neji entered the room, and worry was on their faces.
"Nee-chan," asked Naruto, squatting down in front of her, "You okay?"
As it had before, when Hinata had visited her, the guilt humbled Haruka. Staring at the floor, she answered him without energy.
"I'm fine, Naruto-kun," she said softly. "I'm just recovering, you know, after all that fighting..."
Naruto's concern did not fade, but he chose not to pursue a more honest answer. Instead, he said what he'd come to say, laying it all out on the table for her without any nonsense to accompany it.
"Nee-chan, we're going to go find Orochimaru. We think he has Keisuke nii-chan with him. We want you to go with us."
Haruka's head perked up. After she had interrupted an interrogation and threatened the health of him and Hinata, they were still interested in keeping her around? And... What was that about finding Keisuke?
Naruto kept talking, hoping to get a response. "The thing is, there's only me, Hinata, Neji, Kiba, Shino, and Sakura going, since everyone else is either working on the village or doing other missions, and we'd all feel better if we had one more person. You never know if we might get caught between a wall and some patrol, or if our guide might lead us astray. That and..."
The blond looked at her pleadingly, as though begging a favor. What was this all about?
"Well, Hinata and I were wondering if you might teach us a little bit more about the Synchronization jutsu. It saved our lives against Sasuke, and we thought if you had any tips, you know..."
Haruka felt ashamed and relieved at the same time, and dropped her head to her chest. She had such good and forgiving friends, and she had hidden herself away like a depressed psychopath, rejecting their help. And if Keisuke could have watched the way she was acting now, he would have laughed himself silly. She could just imagine his eyeless face contorted with mirth.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Is that really you, Haruka? What happened to the Sadist, who never took shit from anyone, even herself?
She was blank-faced for a moment, imagining it. Then, her lips formed a smirk, and she raised her head.
I'm right here, you damned idiot. Just how blind can you get?
"Let's go," she said. There was no rage in her voice, only the determination and cunning that was the Sadist. "We're going to bring that blind bastard back here, and then he'll get a whipping he'll never forget!"
You made the Hyuuga see again... In return, I'll make this Orochimaru bastard see death!
Unspeakable pain was breakfast, lunch, and dinner for Keisuke. He spent his entire day on an operating table, having blood drawn, skin sliced away, electric currents run through him, and various other medical tests with various sinister-looking machinery. And every test took at least three times as much sample as it needed to, if not more.
Yet, after hour upon hour of torturous examination, his captor finally halted. Gasping for breath, Keisuke could barely hear Orochimaru speak over the frantic thumping of his own heart.
"Well," said the Snake Sannin, "I'm afraid that we can do no more today. My body is weakening, and must rest before we continue. And when I awaken, we must travel. But not to worry, my blind friend—You will be entertained until I return."
Keisuke heard the rustling and clacking of plastic tubing. Orochimaru was putting something into his intravenous tubes.
More drugs? Keisuke thought. He would have thought aloud, if he weren't laboring to stay awake against the effects of the new medicine.
"A gift to you," said the serpentine master, "In honor of our renewed acquaintance..."
The Snake Sannin's laughter was drowned out by the onset of forced sleep. A silent blackness fell over him. But this lasted for only a moment, as the drugs began to bring him dreams.
Dreams he never imagined he would see again. Keisuke watched them and wished that he could scream.
They were the worst kind of nightmare, because each and every one of them had actually happened.
OoOoOoOoOoOoO To be continued... OoOoOoOoOoOoOoO
Coming soon: The War of the Eyes
The next Great Shinobi War has begun. The Leaf has been damaged, but they are still combat-capable and their defenses are far from crumbling. Allied with the Sand, they stand firm against the combined forces of the Rock and the Sound. However, the early warning signs of other powers entering the fray have already begun to show, and the border lands are crawling with enemies.
It is into this contested wilderness that eight shinobi venture forth. Their purpose is double: Obtain information about Orochimaru, the sinister master ninja who initiated the war, and rescue Keisuke, shinobi of the Leaf and friend to Uzumaki Naruto. The journey will lead them through mountains, valleys, and forests fraught with peril to their final destination—the wasteland known as the Grave, at the heart of which lie the ruins of Keisuke's birthplace.
Throughout the trek, Naruto's mind must juggle many conflicts. Among them are the complications of the Caged Bird seal and its effect on his tenant, Kyuubi, the trustworthiness of his former-teammate-now-prisoner, Uchiha Sasuke, the whereabouts of his former mentor, Jiraiya, and the truth about his own feelings for Hyuuga Hinata, whose recent confession has made of his heart a conundrum. Though he keeps his many questions to himself and trains himself intensely in preparation for the coming conflict, he cannot help but feel that their weight will slowly crush him if he does not find the answers.
And all the time, he cannot shake off the feeling that he is being constantly watched by multiple deadly powers...